Porn is Mainstream

The Thinker by Rodin

When I feel a desire to look at porn there is no better place than the privacy of my personal computer. Thanks to the Internet, Usenet and high speed cable modems porn is available at no real cost (aside from internet access) for those who want it.

But I assumed that porn was still dirty. I assumed there was still some stigma attached to it. The dearth of strip clubs and adult “bookstores” (as they used to quaintly be called) here in Northern Virginia suggested to me that porn was still socially unacceptable. Even the men’s magazines at the local Barnes & Noble are wrapped in plastic.

I know there are a couple places in my county where hardcore pornography can be procured. I stumbled on one a few miles from my house some months back that I never knew existed. Who knew that MVC Video wasn’t a competitor to Blockbuster? I know of a hole in the wall in Fairfax City and have heard rumors of such an establishment in Springfield. Needless to say of course nothing on the shelves at the local Blockbusters ever gets beyond an R rating. We have no strip clubs in Fairfax County and I’m sure zoning wouldn’t permit it. But we do have one and only one Hooters down in Fairfax City. This is as ribald as Fairfax County gets.

So I figured most who needed a porn fix were getting it safely and discreetly online. No need to suffer the glare of the morally sanctimonious clerk anymore. Basically I assumed we were still ashamed of it. If we had a Penthouse or a Hustler we were hiding it under the mattress.

But my recent excursion to Florida suggested that I was entirely wrong. At least in Florida, porn is mainstream.

Not that Orlando (where I stayed) was overwhelmed with strip clubs and adult video stores. It tries to project a family image. I knew strip clubs could still probably be found on South Orange Blossom Trail somewhere, unless things had changed in the thirty years since I lived in Orlando. (I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida.) Most likely prostitution is still available somewhere on the trail too.

I can’t claim to have spent vast amounts of time in adult bookstores. But what I remember from the few I visited in DC before they were driven off 14th Street was they were dank places that smelled like a men’s room that had never been cleaned. And if you were expecting a woman to be a patron, you had best wait for a blue moon. It seemed to be a place for older men in trench coats to frequent. But the common denominator, aside from the bad hygiene, was that they felt sinful. That was part of their allure. You hoped that no one you knew happened to be in the neighborhood when you dodged into the store. But you enjoyed the thrill that maybe just maybe you might be caught. Or maybe just maybe you might find your minister perusing the BDSM magazines.

Fast forward to Orlando in 2004. I am there on business and looking for T-shirts to bring home to the wife and daughter. And nearby is this adult “emporium” establishment, awash in nice inviting bright lights. I hardly recognized the place because it looked so entirely ordinary. From the outside it might have been a drug store. Well it wasn’t much out of my way so I popped into the store, figuring here in Orlando at least the older men didn’t need trench coats.

It turned out I was the closest thing to an older man in the place. Behind the counter were two happy young ladies (presumably over 18) smiling and welcoming me into the store like they were Wal-Mart greeters or something. I figured this had to be the wrong place because, well, there was a woman behind the counter and it was so darn bright in there. And also it was clean. And it didn’t smell. And there was Muzak on the speaker system. And just behind the counter were rows and rows of adult videos, DVDs, books, marital aids and other assorted adult novelties.

So I’m walking up and down the aisles. It’s an extensive place: a veritable superstore of adult merchandise. There’s the anal sex aisle, there’s the oral sex aisle, there is a portion of an aisle devoted to gangbangs, the compulsory lesbian area, an extensive gay sex area, and specialty areas devoted to those into (I swear I am not making this up) grandmothers, midgets and pre-op transgender folk.

And not only are there women behind the counter, there are women walking the aisles, sometimes with a boyfriend or two in tow, sometimes together. Well knock me over with a soda straw! Women come into these places on their own initiative! The very idea! To be fair the women seemed less interested in the selection of DVDs and videos and more interested in the vibrator and lube section of the store.

I expected people to maybe be wearing dark glasses but everyone is so casual and chatty it’s like no big deal. There is even a teen wandering around who couldn’t have been 18 … who let him into the store?

And everything was wrapped or encased in plastic (for security, presumably). The DVDs and videos are adorned with lurid XXX pictures leaving no detail to the imagination. There were shiny wet human orifices opened for your viewing, often inserted with all sorts of things, some human, some artificial. If you are squeamish about body fluids it’s not a great place to visit. But clearly the patrons were nonplussed. Maybe they were shocked the first time they came in. But now they seemed inured. They seemed almost bored. It made me wonder why they were there.

In fact I quickly found out, much to my surprise, that I was bored by the place. Surely I thought there must be something in this vast superstore that would appeal to my prurient interest. But I couldn’t find a thing. Oddly it all seemed the same. It was like Sam Walton was running a porno superstore.

I am upset. Someone changed the rules. Everything was all hanging out but it was boring. It didn’t feel sinful. If I were still a Catholic I wouldn’t have even bothered bringing it up in confession. Where can a teenager go these days to feel guilty about something? Porn was a great but safe way to feel guilty, naughty and rebellious. Over the last 20 years the material seems to be a lot more lurid than I remembered it. Everything is now designed to be more shocking. But in the process porn has become so over the top that nothing is shocking.

Sometime over the last twenty years or so (when I obviously wasn’t looking) pornography became mainstream. I am sure there are plenty of places in the United States where it can’t be purchased locally. But in the home of Anita Bryant this particular culture war seems to have been won by the progressives. Pornography is not going to go back in the closet. It’s been mainstreamed. Somewhere doubtless there is a company specializing in the stuff on the Fortune 500. It’s been mass marketed and mass merchandised. Stores have been redesigned to be inviting to women. I have to assume women too must have secretly lusted for this stuff but felt too intimidated (until recently) to actually go into one of these stores. Those days are gone.

But I am also sad and nostalgic. Without the allure of shame and sin, can pornography survive? Will we reach the point of such saturation that women have to return to petticoats for a few generations so we can appreciate it again?